Jean Drèze: What I have written is that experience is as important as evidence, and that one useful role of experience is to help us re-examine our values. Our values are often influenced by our interests, or the interests of the class or caste or social group we identify with. For policy-makers, that would usually mean a privileged group. Spending time with underprivileged people can help to see things from their point of view. To illustrate, India’s public distribution system tends to be disparaged as a wasteful freebie in the business media, but poor people often see it as a lifeline. That is not, in itself, a vindication of the public distribution system, but it is certainly a useful insight.
JD: These incidents were partly due to chronic poverty, aggravated by widespread drought. But they were also made possible by a virtual absence of any sort of public support for vulnerable households. Instead, the government was busy accumulating huge food stocks at that time, well in excess of official buffer norms. This reduced the effective food supply and heightened food prices, even as people were struggling to survive. Far from helping, public policy contributed to starving the poor.
JD: The prime minister spoke in jest on this subject, and while the remark was in bad taste, we should not read too much in it. However, there are many other signs that the NDA government is not interested in social policy. The main priority seems to be to save money. Social schemes have been retained, because rolling them back would be politically risky, but they have been left to languish. With the partial exception of Swacch Bharat Mission, there have been no significant initiatives in the field of social policy during the last four years.
JD: Most of the recent claims about Aadhaar-enabled savings are nothing but government-sponsored propaganda. Ministries and state governments are under pressure to report figures of Aadhaar-enabled savings, and some faithfully toe the line. One recent example is the Jharkhand government’s startling claim, on 11 September 2017, that it had cancelled more than 11 lakh fake ration cards with the help of Aadhaar. Firstly, the figure is wrong, and was indeed retracted later. Second, most of the cancelled cards are not fake cards at all. Some of them were ordinary ration cards that had been cancelled in the routine process of updating the lists. For instance, when a joint household splits, the old card is often cancelled in favour of separate cards for the new households. In other cases, cards were cancelled because the cardholders had failed to link their ration card with Aadhaar, for no fault of their own. This is the worst type of so-called Aadhaar-enabled savings, where eligible people are bumped off the lists and then the savings are credited to Aadhaar.
JD: This sounds like a replay of the infamous hijacking of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in Uttar Pradesh by Ponty Chadha. Even as most other states were moving away from ready-to-eat mixtures to cooked food for children in the age group of three to six years, Uttar Pradesh continued to give them a useless mixture called panjiri. This panjiri did nothing for child nutrition, but it meant a hugely lucrative contract for the winning supplier. In this case, the winner was Ponty Chadha, a notorious gangster-businessman close to Mayawati, who also had the monopoly of liquor licenses in Uttar Pradesh at one time. Baba Ramdev is the new Ponty Chadha. Replacing cooked midday meals in UP schools, if it happens, will be disastrous for children but it will be another business coup for Ramdev.
JD: What needs attention here is not just caste conflict, but also the positive value of midday meals as a way of combating caste prejudice. It may be true that replacing cooked food with packaged food would ease caste tensions around midday meals, since upper-caste parents who object to their child eating wholesome food cooked by a Dalit woman may not object to them eating biscuits or potato chips. In the process, however, an opportunity will be missed to challenge these prejudices and impart more egalitarian values to children. When children learn to sit together and share a meal irrespective of caste, the caste system takes a healthy blow.
JD: Hopefully, this will not affect the coverage of midday meals because school teachers will be sensible enough not to deprive any child of food for lack of Aadhaar. But it will cause a lot inconvenience and waste of time, for no purpose. If midday-meal registers are inflated, by adding the names of pupils who are actually absent, linking children’s names with Aadhaar will not help unless it is combined with biometric authentication for every meal. Daily biometric authentication is bound to create the sort of chaos we have already seen in the public distribution system. It would also reduce coverage, and exclude many children for no fault of their own. Quite likely, the real purpose of making Aadhaar compulsory for midday meals is to force children to enrol. This is one example, among others, of the coercive and invasive nature of Aadhaar.
JD: The protest was mainly about the stagnation of real wages under MGNREGS, delays in wage payments, and the denial of compensation for delayed payments. Almost ten years have passed since bank payments of MGNREGS wages were introduced. Yet the system is still unequal to the task of paying wages within 15 days, as prescribed under the act. Sometimes wages are even lost in transit due to technical glitches in the Aadhaar-based payment system. Wages are also held up for other reasons from time to time—in Jharkhand, for instance, wages were held up for months last year because a few districts had not submitted their social audit reports to the central government. In one district, apparently, the report was delayed because the district coordinator was on paternity leave. In these and other ways, MGNREGS workers are constantly held hostage to lack of funds, centre-state disputes, and technical hurdles. Aside from being a grave injustice, this threatens to undermine the entire programme. If people have worked, they must be paid without delay.
JD: Kashmir is actually a prosperous state compared with most Indian states. That is obvious to any visitor, and also evident from statistical data. For instance, official poverty estimates based on National Sample Survey data suggest that poverty rates in Jammu and Kashmir are among the lowest in India. Jammu and Kashmir’s social indicators are also quite good: better, for instance, than those of Gujarat, almost across the board, despite Gujarat being regarded by some as a model. Kashmir does have a serious unemployment problem, aggravated by years of conflict, but living standards there are relatively good. So, lack of development is a very misleading explanation for the Kashmir conflict. This explanation is part of a larger discourse aimed at denying or obfuscating the real reasons for the deep alienation of the Kashmiri people from India.